Why a Garage?
An interview with the creator of the Simula Garage, Professor Aslak Tveito.
On April 4th 2014, many of the entrepreneurial members of the Simula Garage gathered for an informal Q&A with the Managing Director of Simula, Aslak Tveito. Aslak created the garage as an experimental platform for innovation at Simula, and the entrepreneurs were given this opportunity to present their inquiries.
Aslak: “Having this meeting started as a very informal idea as we registered that there are some questions surrounding the Garage – what it is about, what is Simula’s motivation and things like that. I thought it might be a good idea to have a meeting so that you could ask me whatever you want. I will answer as well as I can.”
Q: Please describe your vision for the Garage.
Aslak: “The process of creating the Garage started when we developed a strategy procedure at Simula, where we acknowledged that we have three legs to stand on: Research, Education and Innovation. When it comes to research, we have been evaluated to be the best lab in the country – we have internationally leading researchers working here, and we have achieved good results. When it comes to education, we have educated about 275 master students and approximately 70 PhD candidates. However, when it comes to innovation we have been stumbling. We have tried many things with good intent, but they have not been very successful, and we have spent a lot of time thinking how we can do this better. We have not been alone in this, as it is a problem faced by a lot of Universities globally. It is not clear how to successfully take research into the marketplace.
I have observed one unfortunate thing at Simula: We tend to hire a uniform type of person. Our employees are very good at doing research, and some of them are exceptionally good. They are technically well trained and so on. However, it is very rare that they are also entrepreneurs. I would guess that out of the approximately 300-400 researchers that have worked at Simula throughout the years, I believe I can count the entrepreneurs on one hand. I think it is important to acknowledge that this is a rare combination.
We were thinking about how we can do something about the scarcity of entrepreneurs amongst our researchers, and the idea of the Garage came up. The idea was that we should invite other people into the Simula space and see what happened. Part of the motivation is to bring a different kind of people with different ideas into the building, however, another part of the motivation behind the creation of the Garage is that I have always felt that innovators and entrepreneurs in Norway have been treated badly. I do not have any data on this, but this is my impression after talking to a lot of people. Entrepreneurs seemingly have to give away a lot of their company very early on, which means that after four or five years they end up owning merely a small portion of their own company. This is why we wanted to do something completely free, no strings attached. The basic idea was to see what would happen if we offered free office space, and that has attracted about 50 registered entrepreneurs. Some people have not done much more than register, and some have been very active, so there is a great variety between the people who have come through.
As you will understand from what I have been saying, this is an experiment. The Garage is not based on a model; We have not seen this kind of project anywhere else. Furthermore, if it had been unsuccessful by now, we would have closed it down. It has not been extremely successful, but it has been just fine, and we will carry on for some time to see where it ends. We are also certainly interested in improving what we are doing. We have to learn, we have to adjust. We presently have these master students that will write about this initiative from a more academic perspective, comparing it to others. We are very interested in what other groups are doing, and we want to learn from them. My hope is that the Garage will be a very lively place, and that every once in a while there will be a successful start-up. If that start-up then wants Simula to invest in it, that is something we can consider. That is my main motivation. Short question, long answer. “
Q: “How can we help you? If your vision is to get people to join the Garage, what kind of people do you want? What do you want out of it? We can help you bring those people here. “
Aslak: “The biggest help we can get is for you to concentrate on your project. Make your project a success – that is your number one priority. Please just do your thing and make it work. If we get a success or two, our solution will become popular and the Garage will fly. That is the biggest challenge to all of you, really – be successful. We want more people to join the garage, and if they do, we will expand the amount of space available for the entrepreneurs. Space is inexpensive at Fornebu. Simula resides in the old Terminal building, and it was not originally built to be an office. This means that the rent is much lower than the rent we would have paid at Blindern [location of the University of Oslo] or downtown. This makes it easy to extend the Garage whenever this is necessary. We have the best possible relationship to Technopolis, and if any of you would like to expand your enterprise or create a company here, we can fix that. So feel free to do marketing in any way possible, but I believe that the best marketing is success.”
Q: “Is there any motivation to engage the researchers in the innovation projects?”
Aslak: “Do we want to push the researchers onto the entrepreneurs or vice versa? I believe that this should not be a goal. Any cooperation should come naturally. We should meet in the middle. We share the same coffee machine, which is the origo of Simula, and we hope conversation occurs naturally there. I do not want to push people together, though I want to talk to the researchers when I know that people are working on something of interest and vice versa. We encourage everyone to talk and get in touch."
Q: “There is a lot of research going on – is there a motivation to put this research on the market?”
Aslak: “There is a wide range of research going on. Part of the research is very basic, and it will be twenty years before it can reach any kind of market. However, some of the research, perhaps particularly in Software Engineering, is much closer to the market. The company Celerway, which we are attempting to build here at Simula, is based on two PhD projects that were completed in 2011 or thereabouts. That is quite recent, and it would be of significant commercial interest if it were successful. So, yes, we want parts of our research to be of commercial interest, but some of it is of a more basic nature.”
Q: “Would you suggest the right way of pitching proposals to the researchers and vice versa?”
Aslak: “I would do the “knock on the door”-method. That way you spend five minutes in conversation finding out whether the project is of interest or not.”
Q: “Does Simula have any resources focusing solely on commercialising your findings?”
Aslak: “Not really. I think everyone at Simula are aware that we really try to exploit commercial possibilities, and we do not want to build up a bureaucracy. I do not like the method of operating where you have to spend a lot of time manoeuvring a bureaucracy. We should have a culture where everyone knows that Simula encourages people to establish start-ups. If you end up starting a company via Simula, you will end up owning a large portion of the company. We have done this many times, and it is a good deal for the researchers.”
Q: “Would it be a good idea for Gründergarasjen to have a short weekly talk on entrepreneurship, marketing or sales? It would be helpful for the entrepreneurs to have an arena where they can learn new things that they can use on their projects.”
Aslak: “Has there been sufficient interest for doing things like that? It is no problem at all for us to arrange for a person to come in and have a talk about start-up aspects. However, you should not feel obliged to attend; it should be a topic of real interest, something that you really would learn from. Also, most of you come in during the afternoon, as you have obligations elsewhere, so that is something we’d take into consideration.”
Q: “When we reach the point when it is time to launch a product or a concept, would it be possible to have a presentation at the Simula offices? Could we possibly borrow meeting rooms?”
Aslak: “That is no problem. We can help you with things like that; it would not be a problem at all. It would of course be critical that you take responsibility for the event and clean up after yourselves and things like that. The facilities and meeting rooms are at your disposal, you just check with our coordinators whether they are available, and then you can book them at no charge. Just clean up the mess.”
Q: “Is there a motivation for the researchers to be involved in the Garage?”
Aslak: “The researchers did not make the decision to start the Garage, I did. I believe that almost all of the researchers at Simula are interested in developing innovations out of what they are doing. They will see that this is a way to try to be better. I have not heard a single complaint about the Garage. I have never registered a negative attitude, more a “This is fun, this is interesting, let’s see how it works”. Then they return to their work. I think we have to admit that the researchers are not that interested, overall. They are extremely interested in their equation, or in their software system, and they are extremely focused on their work, as they should be.”
Q: “What’s next for the Garage?”
Aslak: “We have established the first step: We give something for free in order to attract activity. Some of the activity is successful, and some is not. Further, we are looking at the possibility of constructing an accelerator of sort in order to speed up the projects. This is at the idea stage. Another fundamental thing we are discussing is how to get more funding that Simula can then funnel into these projects. As you all know, acquiring funding is difficult. Money does not come for free, and you really have to make a good case for yourself. However, I am sure that if the Garage is successful, it will attract the interest of other investors. Simula will be interested in being a co-investor in projects that we believe in. Part of Heidi’s job is to look for great projects that we can invest in. We have done it once, and we have been in negotiations with two more, so we are definitely interested in that. Even if we do not invest in a project, the one year is still free.”
Q: “On Monday we were invited to “Virkemidler for regional innovasjon (VRI)”, a regional innovation program conference, and we would not have had the opportunity to go there and contribute with our own experiences if we were not connected to Simula. I think it gives us a helpful advantage.”
Aslak: “That’s good. This is important for us to follow up on. The formalities surrounding the applications to the funding agencies is something we really should be strong on in Simula Innovation and in the Garage. We have to learn what the formalities and requirements are, and we have to make sure that you do not make a mistake in processing your applications.”
Q: “I think we all have a painful relationship with accounting, and we all have very similar problems. If we could structure that and if we could have some mentoring as part of the project it might be beneficial. We could have a mastermind group where we share our problems.”
Aslak: “One comment about the accounting first: I am very positive to that. I’m very positive to every possible way of supporting your project in practical manners, and this is definitely a practical manner. We should discuss models for doing that. If you have concrete questions about PAX or a legal situation, or contracts, you can talk to the Director of Business Development at Simula. If you have specific questions about the Research Council, VRI, things like that, we have a lot of experience with those things. I am eager to offer those things to you.”
Q: “Concerning the mentoring, we could recruit successful entrepreneurs who have created some companies already, they could come in and have a small talk and share their experiences. Then we can learn from them.”
Aslak: “That kind of thing we can support. Definitely.”
Q: “How long are you an entrepreneur? We are going to launch our first project this summer, but we are still going to be in the start-up phase as we are going to develop the product for some time and work as a small group. When are we no longer qualified to be here?”
Aslak: “I’m generally against rules. All cases are always so different, so we have to relate to every unique case. What I try to do is to establish a culture, to establish some general principles, and then every special case is a special case. I do not want to make specific rules, because they are always a pain. The thing we want is for you to succeed. So, if you are producing your first product we are not going to punish you by throwing you out.
That’s about one hour. Have we forgotten anything? I think someone asked at an earlier point if Simula was doing this to look good. The answer is that we do not do things at Simula to look good. We never do that. We never discuss “How would this look, or how would that appear?” We try to do good things. We do this because we think this is good. There are no politics involved in the Garage, it is completely self-invented. If it is not successful, it will die peacefully. If it is successful, of course we will carry on supporting it in the future.”